Living in a split world

Communication |

Professional parents, both men and women, in the Valley suffer the particular strains of juggling family and work, including the stigma of the so-called “drag coefficient” of parenting — basically, being perceived as less valuable because their parenting commitment could hamper their productivity. Women have suffered this for many years. Now men are, well, catching up. “The real change I’ve seen in the Valley is how many fathers are much more invested in their families. They’re taking their kids to school and showing up for plays,” says Laraine Zappert, a clinical psychologist who is also an associate professor at the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford University. Fathers generally want to spend more time with their family. Trouble is, while individual men have progressed, the macho die-hard 24/7 testosterone-fueled work environment of the ’90s hasn’t caught up. Many companies have maternity policies and offer flex time for parents, but it is generally less acceptable for men to avail of them, Zappert says. She is writing a book on strategies for women who are trying to balance their personal and professional lives.

That appears to be changing, albeit gradually. Life balance issues play a more critical role than ever in retaining top information technology talent, according to a recent nationwide survey. “We’ve seen with the explosion of technology within the last five years there has also been a tremendous maturing of the North American employment base relative to understanding that people who have a good balance with healthy home lives make healthy, sharp employees,” says Greg Scileppi, executive director of RHI Consulting, which developed the survey. Companies are increasingly offering paid time off, telecommuting, part-time work, as well as job sharing.

But in the Internet world, dominated by small, scrappy startups with little in the way of such policies, life balance means no work on Sundays — if you work until 9 p.m. most week nights. Which is one big reason why more and more IT professionals — from software engineers to marketing and public relations experts — are turning to consulting rather than permanent staff jobs.

Take Kamini Ramani, a marketing strategy consultant who worked for several years with public relations firms before joining NetObjects, a Redwood City, Calif.-based developer of Web development software, in 1996. Commuting daily in bottleneck traffic from San Francisco, she stayed with NetObjects until three months before it went public earlier this year, but she grew increasingly stressed trying to carve out enough time to spend with her husband and 5-year-old daughter, not to mention herself. Opting for more freedom, she decided to consult full-time for six months at San Francisco-based Bigstep.com, which offers Web hosting and other services for small businesses. Ramani had the option of becoming a staffer but despite the thrill of helping to “write the company’s story, help it take those first tentative steps,” she wanted more freedom so she left the company, took time off to travel, and is now starting to consult on a project basis for individual clients. “The volume [of work] inside a startup is stunning,” she says. “It’s a 7-day, 12-hours-a-day work week. Anything other than that is the exception…. But the exciting part is it’s a movement. It’s how revolutions get started.” Still, she adds, “I need more time for myself and my family.”

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